Our Shadows by Gail Jones review – a quiet rejection of conformity in the Kalgoorlie mines

Bec Kavanagh
·5-min read

Gail Jones is a thoughtful, accomplished writer whose work speaks for itself: she has been recognised internationally and within Australia on all of the major literary award lists, including the Stella prize, the Miles Franklin and the UK’s Orange (now Women’s) prize for fiction. Her 2018 novel, The Death of Noah Glass, won the 2019 Prime Minister’s literary award. Praised for her precise, incisive observations, Jones’s writing frequently offers nuanced reflections on the cultural state of Australia as well as quiet revelations about the lives of her characters.

Our Shadows is no exception. In her ninth novel, Jones explores the intimate lives of three generations living in Kalgoorlie, beginning with Irish-born prospector, Paddy Hannan, who discovered gold in 1893. Jones tells a story of gold and greed that goes beyond myth and folklore, deep into a family trying to reconcile their past with the present.

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Our Shadows is written like the wave that haunts its imaginative landscape, ebbing and flowing from past generations to the present and back again. Sisters Nell and Frances are the youngest generation, raised by their grandparents, Fred and Else, when their mother dies in childbirth. Jones’s fragmented narrative allows her characters to coexist: they are alive and dead, young and old, cause and effect.

Despite being close as children, in adulthood Nell and Frances are estranged. Frances still grieves her husband, Will, who succumbed to a slow, early death from mesothelioma, while Nell struggles to come to terms with her position in the family, and the mental health issues that have plagued her since adolescence. As the two sisters come to terms with Else’s dementia, and her gradual disappearance from their lives, they reflect on the circumstances that have made them who they are, and strive to understand their history. Fred and Else are imprinted into the sisters’ lives, but also appear in their own timeline, in a story of love, the horrors of war, and the grief of losing a child.

Jones casts a critical eye over colonisation without turning her white protagonists into saviours or saints

Although Nell and Frances have moved to Sydney as adults, the true setting of the novel is Kalgoorlie, where Paddy Hannan first discovers gold. Jones pays particular attention to the mines, which capture the collective imaginations of all three generations. The mine becomes a representation of the unknown and the unspoken, both personal and universal. For Paddy, it is a site of riches and greed; for Fred, a place to bury the horrors of war and of loss; and for Nell and Frances it is the shadowy tunnels of their childhood stories, and the threat of death and devastation. More broadly, Jones uses the mines to comment on colonisation, and the damage done to people and Country by greed: “On Wangkathaa lands, the town continued rushing and exploding. Greed flowed down the streets like an unfurling gas, and the air was burning and smelt noxious and oddly stale.”

Greed and the destruction of land are only some of the ways in which the shadow of colonisation haunts the novel. Jones casts a critical eye over colonisation without turning her white protagonists into saviours or saints. In Frances, for instance, Jones demonstrates the restorative potential of curiosity and respect – Frances’s friendship with Wiluna woman Val is deep and instantaneous, and Val is generous in sharing her knowledge and compassion with Frances. But it is a complex relationship too, in which cultural misunderstanding necessitates a willingness in Frances to accept that there is knowledge and space that isn’t hers to claim. This thread in the story echoes earlier attempts by Jones to navigate themes of reconciliation in her work – seen most overtly in her 2008 novel, Sorry, which has been described as having had a “healing quality”.

It is easy to understand why Jones’s writing is held in such high regard, as she manages to not only weave in commentary on the toxic legacy of colonisation, but also the devastation of war and toxic masculinity without once veering away from the lives of her characters. With careful crafting, Jones rejects conformity, proffering instead a way of interacting based on respect, and a genuine interest into the lives of others.

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Paddy and Fred, in their respective timelines, each question the harmful fallout from mining and the mines, sickened by the violence of the underground processes. They are both gentle – perhaps surprisingly, given these settings in which men would be typically expected to perform a type of uber-masculinity. Where some might fall to stereotype here, Jones writes men who grieve at injustice and loss, whose emotional responses betray them, and define them. Fred recognises that he is expected to leave the horrors of war, and the mines, behind him, but he still goes home and sobs in the arms of his wife. Even Frances’s teenage nephew, Luke, rebukes stereotypes with his care and curiosity into the lives of his aunt and his dying/dead uncle.

In Our Shadows, Jones grapples with the “banal truth of disappearing” – that lives are at once meaningless and profound. Her thoughtfully rendered characters chase the shadows of their past in an attempt to understand the imprint left by them on the present and, beneath it all, the deep scar that greed and silence has left on this country and the people who live here.

Our Shadows by Gail Jones is out now through Text Publishing